The reverberations of the Hallmark/Westland fiasco are still rippling through the industry. Amidst the fallout, cattlemen are asking themselves how they can prevent their operation from becoming the next victim.
It's a two-pronged approach, says Ben Weinheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) vice president. One depends on management taking proactive steps to ensure employees are trained in proper animal care. The other depends on proper hiring practices to prevent hiring a problem to begin with.
That's not easy in today's labor environment, says Clayton Huseman, vice president of the feedlot division for the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA). “When labor's tight, people are inclined to hire the first person who walks through the door,” he says.
That's what happened at Hallmark. The Humane Society of the U.S. spy who infiltrated the Hallmark/Westland plant merely had to walk in and ask for a job. While that has long been an accepted practice throughout the industry, feedyards, ranches and other cattle businesses may want to take steps to formalize their hiring practices, Weinheimer says.
It won't be easy. “A good chunk of hiring, especially with the labor-type folks who are hired in a feedyard, is a verbal commitment,” Weinheimer says.
Huseman and Weinheimer alike say cattle operations may be well served to adopt a more formalized hiring process. “Make sure you have an application process, and a process in place to review those applications. Try to know a little about them before you hire them,” Huseman says.
Weinheimer agrees, adding that an interview along with an application may help. “You're going to be able to look at the overall background of this person,” Weinheimer says. “Are there big gaps in terms of what they're willing to share with you about where they've been? Validation of what they're telling you seems to be one of the best ways to prevent those folks from getting into the feedyard.”
However, just because there are gaps in employment history doesn't necessarily mean a hidden camera is in your future.
“If they had a bad experience with a former employer, they're sure not going to tell you about it,” Weinheimer says. So, at that point, feedyard management needs to pay attention, and managers need to make sure that their management team knows what to do if they sense something may be amiss.
In many operations, the hiring process gets delegated to supervisors and division managers. In that case, Weinheimer and Huseman say it's important that the manager impress on his management team that the operation's hiring protocol be followed and if a supervisor senses something may be wrong, they discuss it.
“If they're suspicious about a certain individual, that's taken higher up through the management personnel at the feedyard,” Weinheimer says. Additional interviews or a more thorough background check may be in order to ensure it's not someone who's trying to get into the facility to do something that's detrimental.
However, Weinheimer cautions that an animal-rights terrorist doesn't necessarily have to get hired on and sneak a hidden camera around to film your daily operations. “A feedyard is about as open as any ag operation you can find as far as its public accessibility,” he says. “With today's technology, it's not about having a hidden camera on somebody's shirt, 10 ft. away from handling cattle. There's the ability for video footage and still photos to be taken right from the public highway.”
Training is vital
That means training, backed by a strong emphasis from management, is essential. At the packing-plant level, it's likely that many facilities will install video auditing of the operations, says animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University. While feedyards, livestock auctions and others in the cattle business may not need to go to that expense, the Hallmark/Westland fiasco has sent a strong message to managers of those operations that employee training is absolutely essential. “The Hallmark issue is totally management,” she says. “This had nothing to do with facilities and everything to do with management.”
That means managers need to impress on their employees, in very clear terms, that proper animal handling and care is essential all the time.
“Feedyards must have their people trained, and management must support that, so you could have a camera in there seven days a week and never get caught doing something inappropriate,” Huseman says.
Several tools are available to help you train your employees in proper animal care and handling. Most state Beef Quality Assurance guidelines now contain a section on cattle care and handling. Check with your state cattlemen's association or land-grant university. Nationally, “The Cattle Industry's Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle” is available at www.bqa.org/codePractices.aspx.
This document, funded by the beef checkoff and compiled by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, contains guidelines for cow-calf, stocker and cattle-feeding operations, and a checklist that you and your employees can use for training and self-auditing. In addition, Grandin has audit guidelines for feedyards at www.grandin.com.
For truckers, the “National Beef Quality Assurance Guide for Cattle Transporters,” also funded by the checkoff, contains animal welfare guidelines and a training DVD. Go to www.tbqa.org for information.
“As long as we continue to implement proper animal-care practices in feedyards, we have little to worry about whether or not a hidden camera is brought into our facilities,” Weinheimer says. However, he adds, animal-rights terrorists are still a threat.
“Unfortunately, even normal and appropriate animal-care practices may be perceived as inappropriate to those who are unfamiliar with day-to-day care of animals.” An example, he says, is the feedyard's hospital pens. Those animals are typically in need of special procedures and attention, done for the good of the animal. But even proper procedures can be made to look bad by someone who has an agenda and uses creative editing to promote it.
“Regardless of the position to be filled, you need to pay attention to the people you're hiring,” Weinheimer says. Then, they need to be trained and routinely audited to ensure they understand that proper animal care and handling is non-negotiable.
“We've got to make sure we're taking a proactive approach and doing things right for the right reasons,” Huseman says.
According to “The Cattle Industry's Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle,” training of those who handle cattle should include:
An understanding of the animal's point of balance and flight zone.
Avoiding sudden movement, loud noises or other actions that may frighten cattle.
Proper handling of aggressive/easily excited cattle to ensure the welfare of the cattle and people.
Proper use of handling and restraining devices.
Recognizing early signs of distress and disease.
How to properly diagnose common illnesses and provide proper care.
Administration of animal health products and how to perform routine animal health procedures.
Recognizing signs associated with extreme weather stress and how to respond with appropriate actions.
Basic feeding/nutritional management of beef cattle.
— Burt Rutherford